Saturday, December 20, 2008

Today I sent in a story to The First Line, which is a rather neat literary magazine. All the stories start with the same line, which you can check out at:
The First Line

The spring 2009 first line was, "Herman Sligo was a bit actor who who played Uncle Emil in three episodes of the popular television series The Five Sisters." I wrote a short story titled STARLETS AT WORK AND PLAY to go with the line. Originally I didn't think I could come up with anything around that line, but I really liked the short story I wrote. And I banged it out in a motivated hour and a half, so if The First Line doesn't like it, it was some good practice, not a big loss.

On the bad news front, I got my first rejection back from an agent. That was fast, huh? Girlfriend knew what she didn't want... But I don't mind. It's a numbers game.

An unpleasant numbers game, but still just a numbers game. :)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Since sending out multiple queries is acceptable to literary agents (unlike most magazines, which get all P.O.'d about your reluctance to leave your brilliant work in their queue alone for eight months), I launched Query No. 2 today.

I haven't talked at all about my strategy yet, which (if it actually turns out to work) might be helpful. I'm following a similar method with agents, that worked with my first published poems, and that is: ignore advice.

You see, I was told that it was a waste of effort and SASE's to send out a query letter to a magazine you have not studied (studied as in, purchased and reviewed at least 3 back issues). Right. Well, that would be super if my local Borders or B&N stocked the good lit magazines, so I could do my research for the cost of an Italian cherry soda, but no. They don't.

So I said, screw it. I flipped through my Writer's Digest (which is the most absolutely key book for an aspiring writer), I picked out some good matches for material I wanted to launch, I took a quick browse through the magazine's or publisher's websites, and I wrote up ten queries. I launched a couple short stories, a query for a novel (The Wheaties Year, which is up for a re-write before I mail it out again), and half-a-dozen poems. And I got back two acceptance letters for my poems. A 20% success ratio... in this biz, I don't think that's half bad.

And so I'm trying pretty much the same thing with agents, although I am mildly daunted by the fact that many reputable agents receive hundreds of queries a week. I am using a great site:
(It's free, which is a requirement in my book to be a "great site")
On Agent Query, you can look up agents by who represents particular authors, or by genre. I then look for an agent who appeals to me, and who represents some writers I know of and respect.

And then I follow their submissions requirements to build a package to suit them, which is a big PITA itself. I hope like hell they get to my sample pages -- I feel much more confident in allowing my first few chapters to speak for themselves, than in my abilities to write a query letter.

Then I wait.

Hey, I know I'm not playing the game perfectly yet - I have a lot to learn - but at least I'm showing up. I'm even moderately sure my sneakers are on the right feet.

P.S. I recently finished re-reading Jane Austen's 'Emma' for the first time in a few years, and it is positively brilliant. Just perfect. And while Mrs. Elliot is supposed to be just one big PITA, I know, I have the hugest temptation to start using her dyslexic Italian phrase, "cara sposo", to describe my significant other.

That PS had nothing to do with the writing, but I had to get it out of my system. I am a little obsessed with Jane Austen right now.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sorry I've been out of the loop so long (though I have no known readers at this point, not even my mother). I've been busy with the writing, which, while still not my day job, is first in the not-my-day-job priorities list.

So, I have edited Shards for continuity, made some small changes, formatted. I don't know if it will ever feel entirely "done" -- I think it's really good, don't get me wrong, but it's a lot to say of some 650 pages that yes, I'm quite sure every word, every sentence, is as perfect as I could ever write.

I'm not a perfectionist, though (ask anyone who has ever seen my housekeeping) and I think "really good" is quite enough to begin shopping it out to agents.

Today I submitted my first query to an agent. It was actually quite an interesting process. It seems like every agent wants things some different way -- this one wants a complete synopsis + first three chapters, this one just wants a query, this one wants an outline and one sample chapter... they don't make it easy.

This particular agent wanted a proposal with a commercial perspective: not just a summary and sample chapters, but a page or three on the target audience, competing books in the genre and how this one differentiates itself, and opportunities for the author to self-promote.

With my interest in business - and in making money - as well as my craft, I was intrigued by this aspect. The questions they asked in their proposal were, to some extent, new to me. And I enjoyed building a profile of my target reader (young, female, thinks she's smarter than everyone else... hmm...) and wracking my brain for books that resemble Shards for its material (serious) and tone (darkly humorous).

Hopefully this material will help with the next query I send out. Because while I am both a gifted writer and generally lucky, I'm not thinking this is going to be an easy or quick process. Luckily agents don't mind simultanous queries, so as I find good fits, I'll be able to write up and send new queries. I have an Excel spreadsheet created for just that...

By the way, the agent I applied to today not only fit all my requirements from a business sense (represents several excellent and well-known authors already, good literary agency, represents both chic lit and sci-fi/fantasy stuff), but also won my attention because - she's a Red Sox fan. Living in NYC. Respect!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Writing a new novel is like the first day of school. You don't know your new characters, and you don't know if you'll like them. You don't know if everything is going to work out.

I'm trying to sketch out two new ideas. But honestly, they make me miss Shards a little. I might not have always liked that novel in times, in the thick of trying to finish the damn thing when none of the characters would be shoehorned into doing what they were supposed to do when I originally outlined... but at least I always knew what was coming.

Oh well. I just need to keep writing, and give myself some time to fall into As-Of-Yet-Undeclared Novel No. 2.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Today I found a free (though rather dated) book on succeeding as a professional novelist, written by an active literary agent, Donald Maass. I'm still reading through it but thought it was something interesting to pass on:

It gives some of the "hard info" I'm always looking for, to better understand the literary world. For instance, some numbers:
-5,000 (fiction novels published in the U.S. every year);
-5 (books on average, to be considered an established author);
-10 (average number of years from initial manuscript to established author status).
Although that is very YMMV, of course.

Dated or not, it's interesting to get an agent's perspective. I skimmed some of the early chapters (Persistence is key to a successful career? Really? I never would have guessed that) but I really liked the chapter on successfully pitching an idea.

I love to write, but I am also really intrigued by the business aspect of the writing process. Right now am I so motivated to make my desired changes to Shards (just a few bits of re-writing to do) so I can start contacting agents. More on the agent search to follow. :)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Re-reading the novel is an adventure. Towards the end of its writing, I did not want to continue. I felt uninspired (of course if I only wrote when I felt inspired, I'd pretty much only break out my laptop during dull work meetings). It seemed like the writing was dull and I had lost the "sparkle" that is so key to my M.C. (Main Character).

But it's not like that. So far on the re-read I feel like an eager and interested reader. I didn't have that much time today but I was looking forward to getting back into the book. I really want someone else to read this, but I have to make it MY best first.

Speaking of adventures, I have a little culinary adventure to take soon. I never knew such a thing existed, and I am a little afraid to put this into my microwave:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

How do I begin the re-write? By reading… and that’s certainly the least painful part of this process. Right now I am just reading for flow and continuity, trying to get a general sense for my story. And so far, I like what I am reading (I always feel like I’m writing absolute crap while I’m in the midst of the creative process, so I’m never too sure what I will find at the end).

I will say, though, I feel this novel (Shards of Glass) has a strong opening sentence:
April killed her father while Mom was at a PTA meeting.

Tell me that doesn’t make you want to read the second sentence?

Here’s a favorite quote of mine from a few pages (and in the story, a few years) later—

She picked up one of the paperbacks. “So why do you need a secondhand copy of The Great Gatsby, which sold for-” she checked the inside cover. “Three dollars?”
“There are a few things you need to have a home,” Nick said. “A good stock of breakfast cereal. Curtains in the bedroom windows. And a copy of The Great Gatsby.”

You can tell how I feel about Fitzgerald.

And from a little later on in that same chapter, here’s another favorite quote:

He always seemed to have a lot to apologize for, even though there wasn’t much he regretted.

The idea in Shards of Glass is that April helps her father kill himself, than covers it up to protect the family’s insurance money. She never tells her mother, and part of the staging involves pretending that her father died alone while she visited her boyfriend. Her mother never forgives her. April goes from lying about this one terrible thing, to lying about everything. When the story picks up again, five years later, she has a great life. She’s a student in med school, dating a great guy. But everything she has is about to be endangered by her pathological lying – and the all-too-temporal ghosts of her past.

The book’s an odd one – chick lit with lots of action (an armed bank robbery, blackmailing, kidnapping, a hostage rescue). The typical love triangle between April, her current boyfriend and her old flame – but without the predictable ending on that one. And really flawed characters, guaranteed to make you want to yell at the pages at times. I know I want to sometimes, and I created them.

Monday, December 1, 2008

I just finished National Novel Writing Month (hereby NaNoWriMo, because nonsensical acronyms are better than typing four whole words) 2008. The goal of NaNoWriMo ( is for each author who signs up to write 50,000 words during the month of November.

This would have been a lot more fun if I was home in the states (or anywhere civilized, really) since there is a big social component to NaNoWriMo. You can get together with other writers to talk about your writing and write together… supposedly this boosts productivity, which I find hard to imagine (given a choice between talking and writing, or talking and anything, really, I always choose talking). But it certainly is fun.

Nonetheless, I am now a proud NaNo finisher. Not a novel finisher, though. 50,000 words is more a novella than a novel itself – not that anyone with a dayjob is likely to write more than that in a month. The novel I finished at the end of October weighed in around 120K at draft completion, and since the new novel is a fantasy, it’s apt to be a bit more verbose. We all know how fantasy writers are… never write one book when you can write three. Or seven. Or fourteen.

I’m not saying it isn’t smart, but it annoys me as a reader. I generally avoid fantasy epics for just that reason. My attention span is not long enough to wait for my lasagna to microwave, it is certainly not long enough to wait four years to find out what happened next to our intrepid heroes, who never seem to get any closer to completing their mission no matter how many cliffhanger endings they survive.

I just realized, I am the grinch of the fantasy epic.

Anyway, one last note on NaNoWriMo. I was interviewed by the lovely Diane Bock from WriMo Radio for their series of podcasts. You can hear me (sounding both younger and dumber than I think I sound in real life, it must be a trick of the radio…) at this link:
Guin's NaNo Interview
Here I talk about what it’s like to novel in Baghdad, in the great nation of Iraq. I especially like the part where I say deployment means living in a "frat house environment", hopefully my male co-workers do not take that personally. Actually, I hope they just never hear it. I would also prefer they not hear the part where I confessed to writing at work sometimes about "werewolves and warrior princesses" (really a gross simplification... but accurate in its own right).

So, that is it for the day… I finished NaNo yesterday, I took today off from writing (a rare thing for me, I figured if I don’t take time off, I don’t have the chance to remember how much I like not writing). Given that I just finished this semester of school (also yesterday), today was my first time in a long time with nothing to procrastinate on. I realized today that many things (shopping on Amazon for things I don't need, reading other people's blogs, cleaning - a sure sign of a task I am reluctant to start) are not nearly as much fun without something else I should be doing.

Tomorrow I begin the editing process on the novel finished in October… check back tomorrow, as I write more about writing (my most brilliant form of procrastination yet).
I feel first entries in a blog are always awkward (Hi! I’m a really charming person you don’t know, but I’m on the internet, don’t you want to read about me? Let me tell you about how interesting and clever I am, in a clever and interesting way!). I was tempted to skip over this one, because really, I am a prolific churner-out of words intended to make myself sound charming, interesting and clever. I expect few people will ever click ‘Previous Page’ enough times to view this but the time I have a hefty readership.

But I am writing a first entry anyway. What can I say? I need a clearly delineated beginning and end when I write. This is why I am probably doomed to write popular, rather than literary, fiction.

So this is the reason for this blog: I am going to become a professional writer. Although this is, as you may have noticed from my blog title, not my day job, I am going to turn it into a day job. And I plan to do this within the next five years.

All I have to do is write an amazing novel, be the one author in a hundred with an amazing novel to be noticed, and maybe go on Oprah.

Now, I know I am not the only person out there who dreams of doing this. And this writing business is always presented as such a game of chance. You could be the next J.K. Rowling, or you could write eighteen amazing novels and never even receive a nice handwritten comment on the side of a rejection letter. But I wonder if this perception is really even accurate. What would happen if you made a truly dedicated effort, as a writer:
• To produce – not just to write when you feel like it, but to write consistently, as if it were, in fact your second job, even if not your day job;
• To hone your craft in a dedicated and disciplined fashion – reading, researching, re-writing.
• To market yourself and your writing. To network. To send out your query letters and outlines. Maybe even to start a self-serving writing blog to help enhance your visibility. ;)

If you really put forth a concerted effort, will the literary world - as happens in most human endeavors - eventually succumb to the pure force of will?

So this blog is a gamble. I’m betting that I can make it in five years. And I am going to chronicle the process – the writing, the editing, the rejection letters, the break-throughs.

I may crash and burn, and seek out a career and lifesyle where I never write anything longer than “Happy birthday” for the rest of my life. I may make it into Oprah’s Book Club or write the next Twilight book. And there’s a whole spectrum between those two extremes. However it works out, you may learn something from reading, and I promise, I’ll do my best to make the ride entertaining.